Fine Artist Judy Soprano
by Nancy E. McCarthy
“I paint almost every day and if I don’t paint, I’m thinking about it,” says Judy Soprano. It’s a perfect summation of Soprano’s passion for painting which ignited a long and prolific art career for this accomplished Livonia-based fine artist.
Soprano’s mediums are oil and watercolor but she also loves to draw. “My sketchpad is my constant companion,” she says. Her preferred subject matter is landscapes, particularly barns, creeks and trees which evoke happy childhood memories of playing with her brothers on her family’s farm in Hamlin. Her work is currently represented by three New York galleries: West End Gallery in Corning, Pat Rini Rohrer Gallery in Canandaigua and Gallery 3040 in Old Forge. In Florida, where she spends part of the winter, she’s represented at Sea Oats Gallery on St. George Island.
“I think her paintings of pleasant, peaceful, rural landscapes appeal to viewers looking to escape the stress and pressure of a busy life,” says her friend Karlene VanDeusen, also an artist. “Her style appeals to men and women of many generations and is slightly romanticized with soft, dreamy edges and dark mysterious corners.”
VanDeusen met Soprano in 2009. They are both members of the Suburban Rochester Art Group. She has learned a lot from the more seasoned artist and considers Soprano a mentor and role model, as well as a good friend. “Judy works harder than any artist I have ever met! She rises early and paints every day with the determination of a worker punching in on the time clock,” says VanDeusen. “She has dedicated her life to painting.”
That may be true now but Soprano didn’t hit her stride as an artist until she was almost 40.
Life Before Art
As a child, Soprano drew cartoon characters to entertain her younger brothers. Her mother and aunt (a talented portrait artist) encouraged her to draw and later paint. She didn’t study art in high school – the Hamlin school didn’t have art classes. When the family moved to Rochester in her junior year, Nazareth Academy offered art but she didn’t have room in her class schedule.
Soprano’s artistic abilities were hibernating by the time she was married and busy raising a family with her husband Ken, a Kodak laboratory supervisor. In 1967 her inner artist surfaced when she volunteered to paint scenery for their oldest daughter’s kindergarten class play. Ken was not aware his wife could draw so when she completed the elaborate sets, he was astonished and delighted. He gave her an oil painting kit and would become her biggest cheerleader.
An artist’s life would have to wait. The Sopranos had five children. The couple bought, renovated and flipped houses in Monroe County long before HGTV made it trendy. Soprano did department store mannequin displays before the kids came along and later, when they were older. She only became truly focused on art when she studied a wide variety of mediums at the College at Brockport from 1977 through 1979. Robert Marx, a printing and etching instructor, made a deep impression on Soprano with his advice to “tell yourself a story as you are drawing or painting.”
“That has stayed with me forever,” says Soprano.
An Artist’s Life
While still taking classes at Brockport, Soprano joined the Irondequoit Art Club and the Suburban Rochester Art Group. She was inspired and educated by monthly art demonstrations, and now had the opportunity to exhibit her own work in club-sponsored art shows. “This is huge to a person who is new at producing art for the public to see,” Judy says, and “very scary at first.”
Toward the end of the 1980s, Soprano began to sell her paintings at the Memorial Art Gallery’s annual Clothesline Festival. When her husband took an early retirement in 1992, they decided to add more shows, including some in Maine and Vermont. “Ken loved doing art shows, setting up and schmoozing people,” Soprano says.
The Clothesline Festival gave Soprano the confidence to approach galleries to represent her work. She was attracting repeat customers who were collecting her paintings. Her first gallery relationship was with Joyce Luebstorff at Roselawn Galleries in Pittsford until Luebstorff sold her business in 2003. “She was great to work with and we sold a ton of her work,” says Luebstorff, who hosted an annual winter exhibit of Soprano’s watercolors.
When Roselawn folded, art scene maven Nan Miller represented Soprano at her famed Pittsford gallery until she retired in 2017. “Her winter snow scenes with barns and reflections in the snow made her one of my bestselling watercolor artists. I was proud to have her included in my stable of artists,” says Miller who is featuring Soprano’s paintings in a special pop-up art show this June [see “Upcoming Exhibits” sidebar].
Soprano’s second gallery was the West End Gallery in Corning, where she is still represented. She is also one of their bestselling artists and has been featured in numerous gallery shows.
“Judy is a phenomenal artist. Decades of experience have allowed her to hone her painting style and find her own truly unique artistic voice,” says the gallery’s Executive Director Jesse Gardner. “Her paintings have a general appeal to a wide array of collectors.”
In the ’80s, Soprano donated paintings to WXXI for on-air auctions. Her first donation was a very “soft and dreamlike” watercolor of trees. When the auctioneer remarked upon it, the painting sold for double its price and she was invited back the following year as a featured donor. The station ran a taped interview of her several times over the next auction weekend. “In my mind, this was the beginning of me being known in the Rochester and Finger Lakes area,” says Soprano.
The artist still found time to travel extensively with her husband to explore countries of their ancestry: Italy, Germany, England and Ireland. They began to spend part of their winters in Florida in 2000 but they stopped traveling and doing art shows when Ken got sick. Ken passed away in 2009 after a six-year cancer battle.
Soprano eventually began to travel again – this time with painting groups both in the U.S. and abroad. Her most recent trip was to Jackson, Wyoming, to paint in the Tetons. She moved to Livonia last year to be closer to her daughters, but still gets to Florida every winter and remains as busy and prolific as ever. Soprano credits her husband, children and her obsession to create art for a very fulfilling and enriching
The Artist’s Process
Soprano works in both oil and watercolor; each medium explored for a stretch of time rather than bouncing quickly between the two. Methodologies are quite different. Watercolors start light and gradually get darker as color is added, while oil begins dark and becomes light. For oils, Soprano uses the grisaille technique: a base underpainting in one color to get the composition, values and textures before introducing color. Though she likes both mediums, Soprano says, “In my brain, I am an oil painter because dark to light is easier.”
She paints outside in warm weather and these plein air works are oil on small canvases. Watercolors are larger and created in her studio (a converted bedroom) from photographs Soprano takes. She uses 300 lb. rough watercolor paper, a limited color palette and several very old paint brushes for her signature style.
Soprano demonstrates how she paints to art clubs and during art events. “Watching her do an artist demonstration is a genuine treat, a real experience watching her effortlessly putting brush to paper and watching the painting come to life, one shape at a time, a shadow here and glimpse of sun peeking through the trees,” says Jesse Gardner of West End Gallery. “Judy is able to give a sense of depth with a single brush stroke. To me, that’s the sign of pure talent.”
Spotlight Exhibit • May 24-July 5, 2019
West End Gallery • 12 West Market Street, Corning
Opening Reception, May 24, 5-7:30 PM: Meet the artists, enjoy music and refreshments. New works by Judy Soprano, Cynthia Cratsley, Christina Johnson and Jennifer Miller.
Finger Lakes Plein Air Competition & Festival • June 4–June 9, 2019
Various events and demos throughout the Canandaigua area
Public Exhibit & Sale, Sonnenberg Gardens Carriage House, 151 Charlotte Street, Canandaigua June 9, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free and open to the public, view and purchase artwork created during the competition. Judy Soprano is one of the juried artists participating in this esteemed international art event.
Pop-Up Art Show • Rochester area* • June 5-16, 2019
Nan Miller is curating and hosting a special two week pop-up art show with Judy Soprano, other prominent artists and introducing new artists.
*Visit nanmillergallery.com for details.